Peter Rabbit still charms kids, adults

October 13, 2002|By Susan Reimer

Long before there was Harry Potter, there was Beatrix Potter.

And during this month, the 100th anniversary of the publishing of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, it is appropriate to revisit the phenomenal success of this English author, one nearly as improbable as that of Harry's creator, J.K. Rowling.

Potter, the beloved children's storyteller whose delicate drawings of the world of woodland creatures continue to charm, was born in 1866 to nouveaux riches parents who had little to do with her thereafter.

She was kept to the third floor of the family's home in Victorian England, and there she was tended by nannies and tutors but isolated from other children and ignored by adults. Not until her brother arrived six years later did she have a nursery mate, but then not for long, as young Bertram was packed off to boarding school.

Potter's isolation was interrupted by frequent trips to the museums and art galleries of Kensington and to the Lake District of northern England. She relieved her boredom by writing in secret diaries and filling sketchbooks with the plant and animal life she observed, especially during months of roaming the countryside.

At the age of 20, she attempted to earn recognition for her exquisitely detailed scientific drawings of fungi, but there was no precedent for women in this field. Despite her cloistered life and her lack of formal education, she was determined to make some kind of independent living for herself, so she produced greeting cards and did illustrations for other children's authors.

It was at about this time that she began writing illustrated letters to Noel Moore, the son of a former governess, who was making a long and tedious recovery from scarlet fever.

The opening line of the first letter is nearly as famous as the opening line of the book it would one day become: "I don't know what to write you, so I shall tell you the story about four little rabbits, whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter."

Seven years later, Potter decided that the story of Peter, who ignores his mother's admonitions and ventures into Mr. McGregor's garden only to lose his shoes, his coat and nearly his life, would make a good children's book.

Failing to find a publisher, she published 250 copies herself with the savings from her greeting-card sales, though her beautiful watercolor drawings had to be reproduced in black and white.

Like J.K. Rowling, the down-to-her-last-bit-of-luck Englishwoman who famously wrote the misadventures of young Harry Potter while at a coffee shop with her daughter in a stroller nearby, Potter was quickly overtaken by stunning success.

One of the publishers who had rejected her quickly reconsidered, and Potter prevailed upon Frederick Warne & Co. to produce The Tale of Peter Rabbit in the format she favored: 5 3/4 by 4 1/4 inches -- just right for small hands -- and with facing pages of text and illustrations. It was an immediate sensation when it appeared in 1902.

Like Rowling, Potter was pressed by her publisher to quickly produce new titles in the series to take advantage of the popularity of the first. Over the next decade, Potter wrote and illustrated 22 more books, introducing young readers to Squirrel Nutkin, Benjamin Bunny, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, Jeremy Fisher and Jemima Puddle-Duck.

Several stories had their origins in letters to children, and Potter once said she thought that was a reason for their success:

"It is much more satisfactory to address a real child. I often think that was the secret success of Peter Rabbit. It was written to a child, not made to order."

The proceeds from the sale of her books allowed Potter to purchase Hill Top farm in Sawrey, England, where she no doubt hoped to set up the cozy domesticity of Mrs. Rabbit's sand-bank house under the big fir tree.

But the sudden death of Norman Warne of leukemia, her publisher's son and the man she hoped to marry, caused her to give up that dream.

She leased the farm, continuing to live with her parents until, at age 47, she married William Heelis.

He had helped her acquire Hill Top Farm, and when they took up their life there, Potter's work as a children's author and illustrator essentially ended. She improbably devoted her time to raising sheep, and in 1930, became the first woman president of the Herdwick Sheepbreeder's Association. She used the proceeds from her books to purchase an additional 4,000 acres of woods and farmland and place them in a conservancy that still exists today.

Potter died at her farm in 1943 at the age of 77, but not before she oversaw the beginnings of the kind of merchandising of a book character that has contributed so mightily to Rowling's astonishing wealth.

She patented a Peter Rabbit doll, a jigsaw puzzle, wallpaper and a game, though she turned down a movie deal with Walt Disney because she wasn't convinced the animation process would do her little characters justice.

That merchandising "sideshow," as she called it, now produces more than $500 million in retail sales, including the Royal Doulton and Wedgwood collectibles that are so often given as heirloom gifts to newborns.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit has sold more than 40 million copies to date and has never been out of print.

It is a book that seems always to hold a place of honor and care in the nursery, while plastic bathtub books and well-chewed board books are scattered carelessly about.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.